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Ratings, but no coattails

The continuing 'American Idol' phenomenon isn't giving the network a broad boost. Why?

March 23, 2004|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

This season's "American Idol" has unleashed a number of surprises, including the unlikely celebrity of William Hung, the contestant famous for his guileless rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs."

But a more significant paradox is playing out behind the scenes, where the show's dominant ratings are creating a dilemma for Fox Broadcasting Co. Contrary to all expectations, "Idol" is getting stronger while the rest of the Fox lineup -- including such critically praised series as the spy drama "24" and the new sitcom "Arrested Development" -- has grown substantially weaker.

Ratings for the singing competition are hitting record highs, both in total viewers and among the young-adult viewers most prized by advertisers. In fact, last week's two-hour episode, the first to feature the 12 young finalists, propelled Fox to its most-watched Tuesday ever. Through the first eight weeks, viewership for the Tuesday airings of "Idol" is up 24%, to an average of 26.9 million viewers, compared with the same period a year ago. Viewership for the Wednesday episodes has climbed 20%, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. ("Idol," which is due to wrap in May, enters its 10th week tonight.)

All that is music to the ears of Fox executives, who say they fully expected "Idol's" ratings to erode during this, its third cycle. After all, even CBS' popular unscripted series "Survivor" has fluctuated in the ratings.

But the rest of the story is not so promising for Fox. "Idol" does not seem to be providing a halo effect for the remainder of the network's lineup. As it did last year, "24" has sometimes aired after the Tuesday "Idol." That berth unquestionably has helped the drama raise its ratings since last fall, when "Idol" was off the schedule. But despite the "Idol" boost, "24" has still lost nearly a quarter of its key young-adult viewership since last season.

Equally worrisome, new series such as "Wonderfalls," "Cracking Up" and "Arrested Development" have delivered unspectacular results, even though all were heavily promoted on "Idol."

Fox executives point out that the current season has been particularly tough for all of the networks, not just Fox. Furthermore, last season the network was enjoying another unscripted phenomenon with "Joe Millionaire," the dating show that topped the ratings among young adults (a sequel flopped last fall).

But Preston Beckman, Fox's programming guru, says there is a legitimate question whether the so-called reality shows sweeping network TV can mix well with the scripted series that have dominated prime time since the 1950s.

Indeed, viewership for Fox's scripted programs from January through the third week of March has slipped 15% compared with same period last year, according to an analysis of Nielsen numbers.

"These are nontraditional Fox viewers," Beckman says of the fans who have turned "Idol" into a TV phenomenon. "Now, it's our job to try and keep them."

That is proving exceptionally difficult so far. And some TV executives say that Fox's troubles are further evidence of the changes sweeping network television. For years, programmers have assumed that hit shows would invariably help the rest of the schedule, because viewers would see promotions for other series and stick around to watch. But while there's little doubt that a hit series can help an overall schedule, audiences have even shorter attention spans than programmers have long assumed.

David Nevins, president of Imagine Television, which co-produces "24" and "Arrested Development," notes that it has become increasingly tough for networks to hang on to fickle young viewers, especially in an age of heightened competition from cable. "This idea of, 'Grab them at 8 p.m. and hold them for the rest of the night' just doesn't apply anymore," Nevins says.

Part of the problem is that Fox's most successful scripted series -- such as the animated hit "The Simpsons" -- are aging and have declined from their ratings peaks. And viewers may have simply rejected the new scripted offerings, such as "Arrested Development."

" 'Idol' is a phenomenon," says Steve Sternberg, executive vice president and director of audience analysis for New York ad giant Magna Global USA. "It does provide a bit of a boost to the shows that follow it, but most people seem to be tuning in and then going about their business."

The challenge for Fox -- which frequently battles with NBC for supremacy of the young-adult demographic -- is to prosper without overusing "Idol" in the same way that ABC overplayed its game show hit "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" a few seasons back. Last week, Fox aired three hours of "Idol," leading some viewers to wonder whether the network is stretching the series too far. Host Ryan Seacrest may have advanced that notion Wednesday by telling viewers: "Welcome to the 10-minute results show we've managed to stretch into an hourlong special. Imagine that."

But Fox executives vigorously disputed the notion that they are spreading "Idol" too thin. Indeed, Beckman says the network has aired 20.5 hours of the show so far this season, just 30 minutes more than for the comparable period last year. (An independent analysis showed the network has aired one hour more of "Idol" so far this season.)

For competitive reasons, Fox declines to say how much "Idol" will be shown between now and the May finale. But Beckman says the network will not "abuse" the series by overplaying it, and indeed has a contract with the producers that limits how often Fox can show the series.

In any case, Fox is certainly better off with "Idol" than without it. Many point out that, despite its problems elsewhere this season, one or two more hits could put the network in a truly powerful position.

"If Fox can develop one scripted hour of success on either Monday or Friday," Sternberg says, "they won't be in too bad a shape next season."

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